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The mental health of people newly reliant on benefits and financial support during the pandemic has worsened far more than in the wider population, according to the annual Society Watch report by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen).
NatCen analysed data collected from over 12,000 people aged 16 or over in the United Kingdom between April 2020 and January 2021 for the Understanding Society COVID-19 survey and identified different financial pathways through the pandemic.
Increases in mental distress occurred in all groups, but the largest increases by far were felt by society’s financial ‘help-seekers’ – people needing financial support other than furlough, such as the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme or a new claim for Universal Credit, after their income was hit by the pandemic.
42% of this group reported being in poor mental health at the beginning of 2021, an increase from 29% before the crisis.
People from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds were twice as likely as White people to be ‘help-seekers’ requiring financial support and facing the greatest increases in mental distress during the pandemic, the research has found.
A separate group of ‘multi-strugglers’ – those facing numerous and long-term financial difficulties – consistently faced the highest levels of mental distress both before and during the crisis.
54% in this group – which had the highest proportion of new Universal Credit claimants – reported poor mental health at the peak of the pandemic’s first wave in April 2020.
People from BAME backgrounds were similarly more than twice as likely as White people to be members of this most economically vulnerable group.
Between May 2020 and January 2021, people classed as financial ‘multi-strugglers’ were three times more likely than people whose finances improved during the crisis to report a new diagnosis for a mental illness.
Dr Neil Smith, Head of Analysis at the National Centre for Social Research, said: “We can observe increased mental distress across the population as a consequence of the pandemic, but people faced with growing financial insecurity have been far harder hit than the financially secure. With the economic fallout of the pandemic expected to continue, the mental health of people relying on employment and benefits support during the crisis should not be ignored.”
Guy Goodwin, Chief Executive of the National Centre for Social Research, said: “As pandemic restrictions ease, we might expect improvement in the public’s mental health. Longer term, improving mental health might be related to the ‘levelling-up’ agenda for the United Kingdom. If we have a strong economy where economic benefits are more evenly shared and fewer people are ‘left behind’, we might begin to see longer term improvements in mental health.”
Alongside the new analysis, NatCen’s Society Watch report paints a wider picture of mental health in Britain before and since the crisis. Additional key findings:
- Established health inequalities persisted, with prevalence of mental distress higher in people with pre-existing health conditions, those living in low-income homes.
- New inequalities in mental distress also emerged, with women, people living with young children and those in employment at the start of the pandemic being at risk of larger increases in mental distress.
- Children with a probable mental disorder were more than twice as likely as children without a probable mental disorder to live in households that had fallen behind with payments during the pandemic (July 2020).
- As the pandemic continued through its first year, women’s well-being was more negatively affected than men’s. Women were more likely to have been furloughed, and to spend significantly less time working from home and more time on unpaid household work and childcare.
- In the older population, there is a strong link between socio-economic vulnerability and depression. Before the pandemic, older people relying on state benefits were three times more likely to be affected by depression than those not receiving state benefits.
- For children, adults and older people, food insecurity - either not having enough or well-balanced food or increased reliance on foodbanks - is linked with poorer mental health.
- Pre-pandemic, around half of older people who could only afford to eat balanced meals sometimes or often were affected by depression compared with one in six of those who can always afford to eat balanced meals (2018/19).
Read the full report here